Heenan and Sayers
It was in merry England, the home of Johnnie Bull,
Where Britons fill their glasses, they fill them brimming full,
And of the toast they drank it was to Briton’s brave,
And it is long may our champion bring victories o’er the wave.
Then up jumps Uncle Sammy, and he looks across the main,
Saying, “Is that your English bully I hear bellowing again?
Oh, has he not forgotten, the giant o’er the pond,
Who used to juggle cannon balls when his day’s work was done?
“Remember, Uncle Johnnie, the giant stronger grows,
He is always on his muscle and ready for his foes;
When but a boy at Yorktown I caused you for to sigh,
So when e’er you boast of fighting, Johnnie Bull, mind your eye.”
It was in merry England, all in the blooming spring,
When this burly English champion he stripped off in the ring,
He stripped to fight young Heenan, our gallant son of Troy,
And to try his English muscle on our bold Benicia boy.
There were two brilliant flags, my boys, a-floating o’er the ring,
The British were a lion all ready for a spring,
The Yankee was an eagle, and an awful bird she was,
For she carried a bunch of thunderbolts well fastened in her claws.
The coppers they were tossed, me boys, the fighting did begin,
It was two to one on Sayers the bets came rolling in;
They fought like loyal heroes, until one received a blow,
And the red crimson torrent from our Yankee’s nose did flow.
“First blood, first blood, my Tommy boy,” the English cried with joy,
The English cheer their hero while the bold Benicia boy,
The tiger rose within him, like lightning flared his eye,
Spying, “Mark away, old England, but Tommie, mind your eye.”
The last grand round of all, my boys, this world has ne’er seen beat,
When the son of Uncle Sammy raised the Champion from his feet,
His followers did smile while he held him in the air,
And from his grasp he flung him, which caused the English men to stare.
Come, all you sporting Americans, wherever you have strayed,
Look on this glorious eagle and never be afraid;
May our Union last forever and our Flag the world defy,
So whenever you boast of fighting, Johnnie Bull, mind your eye.
The 1860 bare knuckle bout between Irish-American boxer John Heenan (1834-1873) and the British champion Tom Sayers in the small town of Farnborough in southern England is regarded as the first world boxing championship. Heenan was born in West Troy, New York to parents who hailed from County Tipperary. He earned the nickname “Benicia Boy” and a reputation as a fighter while working among the rough and tumble Forty-Niners in Benicia, California in his twenties. The fight with Sayers ended in a chaotic draw after 42 rounds with police intervening and spectators rushing into the ring. As the song implies, Heenan’s challenge to the famed Englishman was viewed through the lens of American nationalistic pride.
Heenan’s Irish background no doubt made the fight an especially compelling point of pride among Irish-Americans like Michael Cassius Dean. Dean printed “Heenan and Sayers” in his 1922 songster The Flying Cloud and subsequently sang it for collector Robert Winslow Gordon in 1924. CLICK HERE to hear Gordon’s wax cylinder recording on the Minnesota Folksong Collection site.
The Lost Forty arranged Dean’s version of “Heenan and Sayers” and this month’s video shows us performing it in the Stone Saloon building in St. Paul—a building that housed a lager beer saloon in 1860 that may well have been the site of some post bout analysis.
This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.